Aunt Flo’s School for Girls

We are entering a new era of comedy. At least, I hope we are. The age old favourite phrase of misogynists everywhere that “women aren’t funny” seems to be losing its power as more and more modern comedy icons are indeed women. We’re funny, we always have been funny, it’s just the world is finally catching up with this fact, and it is this spirit that beats at the very heart of Jury’s Out Theatre Company’s digital sketch comedy, Aunt Flo’s School for Girls.

This collection of sketches, spoken word and spoofed ads bring together a show that is reminiscent of comedy titans like That Mitchell and Webb Look and Smack the Pony. Created by Lauren James Howells and developed with Taylor Bond, with writing and performances from its extensive ensemble cast of Esme Michaela, Ayse Demir, Monique Eleanor, Elizabeth Howard, Natalie Prescott, Louise May Mosley, Robyn Naylor and Charly Beahan, we are taken on a whirlwind ride through the hypocrisies and outrageous inequalities of living as a woman in the 21st Century. At points zany and surreal before swooping into the realm of the jarringly dark and all too real, Aunt Flo captures the highs and lows of many women’s lived experiences in the modern world.

From the opening bars of Liv Muir Wilson’s brilliant theme song, right through to the rolling credits, this is an expertly realised piece of digital sketch comedy. The transitions are seamless, creating the strange channel flicking world of satirical adverts, menstrual cycle weather reports and scenes of character based comedy. It’s a streamlined and professionally accomplished show that feels very assured in its comedy style; if this were a TV pilot, I would be itching to see it picked up for series. The balance of biting satire, weird humour and cringingly relatable content is achieved to perfection within this cavalcade of hilarity, and I surely hope this won’t be the last we see from the prestigious halls of Aunt Flo’s School for Girls.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Neat Freak

When a subject becomes taboo, it is easy for misunderstanding and misinformation to fill the vacuum left by the silent unspoken. This is certainly the case with perhaps one of the world’s greatest taboos, mental health and mental ill health. Yet, while more conversations are opening up around the experiences of those who suffer with mental illness, certain mental disorders are still steeped in misinformation and ignorance. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one such condition, and it is this disorder that forms the main crux of Moonhouse Theatre’s show, The Neat Freak.

Created by Charlie Henderson-Howat and Ellen Larson, before being developed by Larson’s own company, Moonhouse, The Neat Freak follows the story of Meg (played by Larson) through her childhood and into young adulthood. We see Meg’s obsessive behaviour grow into full fledged OCD, beginning with small rituals of watching television with her dad every night into the destructive cycle of self harming cleansing compulsions as Meg is physically and mentally eroded away by the ravenous wolf of her disorder. An ensemble chorus represent Meg’s intrusive thoughts that fuel her obsessive compulsive rituals, played by Moonhouse regulars, Laura Haybrock, Zoë Fawcett, Rob Bellamy and Odette Clark, bringing a Greek style tragedy to this very modern show.

Moonhouse Theatre peels back the layers of its complex subject matter in a way that is both emotionally powerfully and narratively engaging. It is no surprise that this is a piece shaped by people with the lived experiences of this mental disorder, for the nuanced handling of OCD in The Neat Freak is so expertly precise. Through ingenious use of movement sequences and the physicalisation of Meg’s compulsions through the chorus, the reality of living with OCD is laid bare; that living with such a condition is to live in constant fear of your intrusive thoughts becoming reality, and the only way to prevent your own self-fulfilling prophecies is to carry out your specific rituals. There is an air of the prophetess Cassandra about Meg’s character, which seems only fitting given Moonhouse’s background in Ancient Greek theatre. This is a hauntingly brilliant piece of ensemble theatre that examines a widely misunderstood condition with masterful intelligence and nuance.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Me ‘Ansum

Perhaps one of the most creatively exciting things to come out of lockdown has been the rise and evolution of digital theatre. Though born somewhat from necessity during the COVID pandemic, I am fascinated to see how digital performances play with narrative form within this new sub-genre of theatre. In watching Blonde Boss Theatre Company’s show Me ‘Ansum, I was struck by the form changing possibilities of digital theatre, and how the conventions of recorded media and theatrical work could be effectively hybridised.

Me ‘Ansum is a patchwork piece, created by its founders Leonie Barnes-Wake, Lydia Webb and Georgi Bessey, featuring original monologues and songs by Eleanor Sawyer, Morgan Waters, Megan Robertson, Tianna Weir, Fran Harman and Josie Lauren Ellis. Me ‘Ansum’s central plot follows Saff and Bella, two students navigating the new socially distanced world of further education, as they bond over a joint university project and begin to realise that their feelings for one another might not be entirely platonic. Intercut with the ensemble cast’s monologues and music, Me ‘Ansum explores the highs and lows of love, sex and relationships for LGBTQIA+ women in the West Country.

This is a truly charming piece of queer theatre. So often, women’s same sex relationships are not given the space for happiness and tenderness. Indeed, most LGBTQIA+ romances portrayed in the media usually end in tragedy, but this is particularly so for women characters in same sex relationships. Me ‘Ansum, however, brilliantly avoids this trope. The way in which Me ‘Ansum plays with narrative form really enhances the emotional impact of the piece, with the changes in pace provided by the monologues in between the central plot line’s story bringing a greater breadth and depth in showcasing queer women’s experiences. If Saff and Bella’s story functions as the show’s backbone, the monologues and song (written and performed beautifully by Tianna Weir) are the show’s organs, fleshing out what could be a simple rom-com into a show with guts, brains and heart. This is a heart-warming half hour of digital theatre, one which embraces the parameters of its online medium and sores with it to funny, riveting and thought provoking heights.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Nhair

Theatre is the space of the taboo. Whether it’s one of Ibsen’s domestic dramas, an in-yer-face play or even a Wildean farce, theatre has been the church of the unspoken and the unseen. Its inherently political nature – for all stories hold their own implicit politics – means that often it is a space to give voice to the topics we tend to steer clear of in polite conversation. Difficult topics are given air, whether through metaphor or humour or bluntly forthright discussion, and it is this quality that makes me excited for this art form – a quality which Conny Hancock and Greedy Pig Theatre Company’s R&D co-production Nhair plays with in beautiful fashion.

This autobiographical solo performance follows Conny in her quest towards a beautiful green garden and bodily autonomy. Diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, Conny struggles with issues of self image and the pressures of societal expectations of beauty as her symptoms present, among other things, as excessive hair growth, and it is this symptom more than any other that forms the central conflict of the piece. Through intercut scenes in doctor’s surgeries, pokey rented property gardens, and bustling pub poetry nights, we witness Conny’s journey towards self realisation and acceptance of her physical identity.

Nhair is a joy to watch, with its charmingly realised garden set – complete with bunting and technicolour synthetic plants – and Hancock’s natural and honest performance. Hancock’s background as a poet is utilised with clever skill as the imagery of her barren, overworked garden is interwoven with her own struggles with her body image, and coupled with her irreverent humour, this is an entertaining and thoughtfully challenging piece. While there is still room for fine tuning with regards to plot – certain threads such as Conny’s relationship with George deserve to be teased out more – this is an accomplished R&D performance that holds promise as powerful piece of theatre.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Seven Stages of Woman

Music is universal. It transcends the usual barriers of communication and translation; in its rhythms and phrases we can interpret the mood and atmosphere of a piece as keenly as any well crafted dialogue. Musical lyrics are themselves a unique form of poetry, and I am always in awe of those who are able to create a story within the precise structure of song. So in watching Fitzwarren Musician’s song cycle, The Seven Stages of Woman, I was intrigued to see how the complexity of womanhood would be portrayed within a musical medium.

Written by Jeannette Owen, with lyrics by Philippa Johnson, The Seven Stages of Woman is a collection of seven songs in different classical styles exploring the life of an unnamed woman, from babyhood to old age. Performed by musicians Abi Owen (viola), Alice Thomas (clarinet), Amanda Ayling (flute) and Jeannette Owen (flute), and singers Danielle Stacey-Evans and Mandy Bohun, this movement of songs cleverly plays with the styles of lullaby, polka, folk song and tango to evoke the changing developmental and emotional states of its central character. The music is beautifully realised by its musicians, with a great performance from its soprano, Stacey-Evans, who portrays the younger embodiment of the piece’s heroine with an assured vocal presence. Yet, while this is a musically strong piece, the lyrics often fall short in matching the assured tone of the score. Indeed, while Danielle Stacey-Evans’ beautiful soprano lifts the writing, the second half of the cycle falters with a more vocally nervous performance from alto, Mandy Bohun.

The Seven Stages of Woman is, conceptually, an intriguing piece, but in its execution it does not quite hit the mark. While the music is sweet on the ear, the story told through the lyrics offer a somewhat reductive view of womanhood, confining its tale to the age-old feminine archetypes of maiden, mother, crone. It is a piece worthy of further development – there is much potential to be had with its subject matter, and certainly, this is a talented group of performers – but in its current iteration, The Seven Stages of Woman misses the mark of musical ingenuity.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️

Mother Tongue

Apocalyptic plots and stories of hubristic doom feel as close to reality as ever in these troubling times. Yet, like any disaster movie worth its salt or well crafted piece of speculative science fiction, there is something unnervingly comforting and compelling about these narratives. Perhaps it’s the feeling of superiority about not being in quite so dire a situation, or the sense that eventually our heroes will pull through against all odds – it’s difficult to pin point what exactly it is about these ill-fated tales that draws us in, but like a moth to the flame, we are entranced.

It was this feeling of entrancement that best describes my reaction to Bath Spa Production and the Wardrobe Ensemble’s new devised piece, Mother Tongue. A modern re-imagining of the Tower of Babel story, Mother Tongue examines the double edged sword of human nature – our desire for advancement at the cost of social altruism, our need to communicate at the cost of misinterpreting cultural nuance, our need to discover and expand at the cost of indigenous destruction – through a distinctly sci-fi lens. Through use of distinctively choreographed movement, choral speech and brilliantly crafted moments of near naturalistic dialogue, Mother Tongue paints a rich tapestry of humanity’s faults and strengths, overseen by the unnerving hive mind of a mysterious pantheon of six unspecified deities.

This is a brilliantly accomplished piece of devised theatre that brings an age old story to a very immediate near reality. At times, Mother Tongue feels like a theatrical extension of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror before swooping more into the unnerving realm of Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic biblical allegories. It is a piece of theatre that leaves one questioning and disturbed in equal measure, but most of all, it’s a production that leaves you with a sense of wonder at the fluid and metamorphic nature of theatre as an art form; there truly is no other kind of creative expression quite like theatre.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

SUPER SPREADER, sex in lockdown

Lockdown, social distancing and… sex? It’s a tricky combination that many of us have had to try and navigate in this COVID world. Add in the already awkward baseline of repressed British self expression and you have a field ripe for comedy picking. This is the brilliant basis behind theatre collective From Rags to Witches’s spoof dating show, Super Spreader: sex in lockdown.

Over the course of this half hour show, we are introduced to Helen (a bookish food journalist), Dwayne (a football mad gamer), Tag (a closeted young bartender), Meg (a polyamorous conceptual artist), Archie (an up and coming rapper) and Jennifer (a bubbly call centre operator), all of whom have been unlucky in love. It’s an amusing mix of clashing characters, yet what makes Super Spreader even more intriguing is how writers and performers Alex Wollacott, Holly Leggett and Vanessa Ndema play with the show’s casting; not only are the women of the show played by Wollacott, Leggett and Ndema, but so too are the men.

Donning masculine drag, Dwayne’s Bristolian bravado is brought to life by Alex Wollacott, as Holly Leggett brings a sweet tenderness to the tragic figure of Tag, while Archie’s hilarious lack of self awareness is given a skillfully underplayed performance by Vanessa Ndema. Indeed, it is in these three key performances that Super Spreader’s strength lies as a comedy. Wollacott and Ndema shine with particular verve as Dwayne and Archie, inhabiting the clumsy macho nature of their alter-egos with a comedic edge that cuts through the sometimes awkward timing of other scenes. Leggett’s Tag, meanwhile, brings a more gentle comedy to temper the other two more brash male performances, touching on the toxic masculinity within internalised homophobia in a way that tips the scales between comedy and tragedy.

Super Spreader is a fun half hour that follows in the tradition of many great British mockumentaries, and while some of the comedy beats don’t quite land, the show’s drag kings are the true stars of the piece; I hope, perhaps, this won’t be the last we see of Dwayne, Tag and Archie.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2